Brooches of the Middle Ages

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Another species of brooch peculiar to the Middle Ages is the pectoral, an article for fastening on to the middle of the breast. It is similar to other brooches, but differs in that it did not always serve to hold the dress together.

In earlier centuries it was often sewn on the garment, and was only occasionally supplied with a pin. It was worn by both sexes, as well as by ecclesiastics, who appear to have borne in mind the chief ornament worn by the Jewish High Priest.

The earliest and most remarkable example of this class is the great gold pectoral—the Eagle Fibula it is termed—found in 1880 at Mainz—that ancient and historical Rhenish city, known in former times from its commercial prosperity as ” Goldene Mainz,” which has proved extraordinarily rich in discoveries dating from classical and early medieval periods.

This famous jewel, both on account of its size and good state of preservation, probably deserves to rank first among all golden ornaments that have come down to us from the early Middle Ages. ” Its composition,” says Herr Luthmer, ” is extremely clear and conscious. An eagle, of heraldic form, it is true, but not with any of that unnatural emaciation peculiar to the later style of heraldry, fills the inner circle of a flat ring of stamped gold enriched with beaded filigree, which at its upper end—in order to give space for the head of the bird— is not closed, but connected by a curve in the circle of wire.

The eight flowers inserted in the openwork of the ring, as well as the whole form of the eagle with the exception of the claws, are filled with cloisonne enamel which unfortunately has disappeared from the body of the eagle, where only the punctured outlines of the feathers are perceptible upon the plate of gold.

Otherwise the enamel, made of translucent green and blue, turquoise-blue, white and yellow, has been preserved in all its freshness.”‘ This pectoral dates from the commencement of the twelfth century, and is one of the chief treasures in the rich collection of antiquities preserved in the Mainz Museum.

Jewels of this species and of this period are of the utmost rarity. Another very beautiful example was discovered at Mainz just five years after the Eagle Fibula, and is now in the collection of Baron von Heyl zu Herrnshcim at Worms. It is formed of repousse gold, and represents an eagle standing upon a branch rolled up at both ends. A fine sapphire occupies the middle of the breast, in the center of the wings are emeralds, the tail is set with lapis-lazuli, and the eye of the bird with a small ruby.

This exquisite jewel dates from the early part of the thirteenth century. The most remarkable among jewels of about the same date (the twelfth century) are the splendid antique cameos —the Cameo of St. Hilary and the Schaffhausen Onyx—both of which were originally employed as pectorals or brooches.

A few brooches are attached, as was once the jewel of St. Hilary, as ex loto on the breast of reliquary figures, like that of St. Foy at Conques, which still exhibits an ornament of this kind. A brooch or fer-mail (for this latter term is not confined to the ring-brooch), if inches in diameter, which once formed part of the ancient jewels of the French Crown, is in the Galerie d’Apollon of the Louvre.

Two exceedingly fine brooches of about the end of the twelfth century, found at Mainz in 1896 and now in the treasury of the cathedral, are described by Dr. Schneider in the Jaliv-buch der Koniglich Preussischen Knustsamnilimgen and a pectoral or brooch of a similar form, a large stone in the center, surrounded by smaller ones—to take only one among many examples—is represented on the twelfth-century statue of a queen, probably intended for the Queen of Sheba, from the west portal of the church of Our Lady of Corbeil, and now at Saint-Denis.

In the case of original jewels of this kind, it is not always easy to determine whether they were articles of adornment for the clergy or the laity, and though those for ecclesiastical use probably predominate, it is only when they contain the figured representation of some religious subject that they can with certainty be identified as cope-clasps or morses, the French equivalent for which is mors de chape.

Morses were frequently of extraordinary size. Monumental brasses and tombstones, especially in Germany, exhibit many examples. Adalbert of Saxony, who was administrator of the archbishopric of Mainz, and died in 1484, is represented on his tombstone in the cathedral with one measuring more than 7 inches across. Existing examples vary from 5 to 7 inches in breadth. The jewelers of the Middle Ages delighted in lavishing their utmost taste and skill on morses, which were of a variety of shapes, and were composed of every material. Some were enriched with precious stones, including ancient cameos, and others rendered attractive with colored enamels.

Several lists of English morses are preserved. In the inventory of Sarum,’ of the year 1222, gold, silver, and jeweled are described at length ; in that of St. Paul’s.Mrawn up in 1295, there are no less than twenty-eight; while the inventory of jewels preserved in York Minster’ in 1500 includes an extraordinarily rich collection of these ornaments.

Though some were clearly made fast to one side of the garment, and were hitched to the other by hooks, or by a pin, like a brooch, they were not always employed to unite the two sides, but were sometimes used simply as a decoration upon the front of the vestment, and perhaps hung there by a chain round the neck.

Examples to be found in many museums are pierced with holes, or have loops behind them, showing that they were sewn to the vestment with purely decorative purpose. From the close of the twelfth century enamel upon copper was much employed for the decoration of morses.

One of the most remarkable, of German workmanship of the fourteenth century, is in the Musee Cluny at Paris;’ while among the finest German jewels of the fifteenth century must be ranked a morse of beautiful execution in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

An excellent idea of the extraordinary beauty of the morses in use at the close of the Middle Ages can be obtained from fifteenth-century paintings, particularly of the Flemish school. Few of the latter can surpass what is one of its finest examples in the National Gallery—Gerard David’s beautiful picture of the ” Canon and his Patron Saints,” in which are displayed, in almost all their pristine freshness, some of the most magnificent representations of the jeweler’s art.

Besides these pectorals, which sometimes served a practical, but often a purely decorative purpose, there were various other ornaments that acted as clasps. These are similar to those still made use of in our day, working on a system of a hook fitting into a loop.

Henry’s Queen, Joanna of Navarre, who lies beside him, has clasps of almost the same form, fixed near the shoulders, and united by a simple band. Somewhat similar ornaments, rosette-shaped, can be seen on the effigy of Anne of Bohemia, first wife of Richard H, in Westminster Abbey. Since the pectoral is sometimes worn together with these clasps, it is evident that it often had nothing to do with closing the mantle ; but when a pin is attached behind, and it is employed for secular purposes, it assumes the ordinary type of the modern brooch.

The old inventories give endless descriptions, but hardly any actual examples, apart from the ring-brooches and William of Wykeham’s magnificent nouch at New College, have survived. In the British Museum is a silver-gilt brooch in form of St. Christopher leaning on his staff and bearing the infant Savior on his shoulder.

Brooches and nouches, mentioned frequently in the English inventories of the fourteenth century, became even more numerous and elaborate in the century following. Foreign influence, strong at this period, left its imprint upon all works of art; and the most extensive commerce was carried on with Flanders, which was then the workshop of the world.

Of all the immense wealth of jewelry of the Dukes of Burgundy in the fifteenth century almost every vestige has disappeared, and the public museums of the Continent are practically destitute of Flemish-Burgundian jewelry of this date.

Yet the British Museum, through the generosity of the late Sir A. W. Franks, is in fortunate possession of several exquisite examples, which were dredged a few years ago from the bed of the River Meuse. The most remarkable is a gold brooch of delicate workmanship, the center of which is occupied by a female figure: a garland encircles her head, a flower set with a small triangular diamond adorns her breast, while her hands hold in front a large faceted sapphire. Around, in the midst of foliage, are three cabochon rubies, and the settings of other stones and pearls which have disappeared.

The remaining and more elaborate jewels contain enameled figures of men and animals executed with extraordinary minuteness and vivacity. The finest, and on the whole the best preserved, has in the center a female figure in full relief clothed in a white robe and long green cloak and a head-dress in the form of leaves. She is seated in a field sewn with flowers in the manner of the pictures of the period, and behind are golden rays.

The figure upon another jewel has a somewhat similar background. Her robe is white, and her head-dress and the edges of her wing-like sleeves red. In front of both figures is a small cluster of precious stones. Though all the objects in this remarkable collection are of about the same date, they differ sufficiently to make it clear that, like the treasures from Saragossa, they owe their presence here to the devotion of perhaps more than one wealthy person to a highly revered shrine.

In spite of the fact that the majority are considerably damaged, they are yet eloquent proofs of the magnificent style of living at the period of their production, and valuable examples of the ornaments of the Middle Ages of which no other collection possesses so large and choice a variety. as they would be termed in old English inventories) in the first half of the fifteenth century— jewelry in pictures of the second half of the century is mostly formed of pearls and precious stones alone.

Jewel led brooches of this kind ornamented with figures in relief are particularly well represented in the works of the older German painters, and above all those of Stephan Lochner, in whose masterpiece in Cologne Cathedral, known as the “Dombild,” the Virgin is seen wearing on her breast a brooch ornamented with clusters of pearls and the figure of a seated maiden, with a unicorn resting one foot on her lap.

In another celebrated picture by Master Stephan—the “Virgin of the Rose-Arbour,” in the Cologne Museum—the same subject is represented on the almond-shaped, brooch which closes the Virgin’s robe while in a third picture by him in the Episcopal Museum of the same city —a picture which, like the rest, bears traces of Flemish influence—the Virgin’s brooch or morse is ornamented with a female figure seated, full face, after the manner of the British Museum and Essen brooches.

Such is the extraordinary quality and extreme rarity of jewels of this type that attention must be drawn to yet two more examples: one in the Imperial Collections at Vienna, and the other in the Carrand Collection in the Bargello at Florence. The former is a jewel of Compare Henry IV’s – The same motive is figured on a morse shown on the left wing of a picture in the Cologne Museum dating from the end of the fifteenth century.

The jewel is worn by S. Nicasius. It is trefoil in shape, and decorated with the figure of an angel, full face, holding a large stone in front. Within the usual circle of gold wire is a pair of lovers standing side by side each holding the end of a wreath.

The figures, dressed in Burgundian costume of the fifteenth century and enameled with various colors, breathe the spirit of the medieval majorette as represented upon ivory mirror-cases and jewel-caskets and in miniatures of the twelfth to the sixteenth century. Between them is a triangular diamond set like the example in the British Museum, and below it a pale cabochon ruby. Around are five pearls.

The jewel at Florence (2 inches in diameter) has a border of green enameled leaves set with pearls, and in the center a finely modeled figure of a dromedary in white enamel. This brooch, which is in splendid condition, was perhaps intended to be worn, as were some other of these pieces, on the hat or cap. Whatever may have been their nationality, a glance at each, from those in the British Museum to the one last described, is sufficient to determine the identity of their source of inspiration. All bear the stamp of the Flemish-Burgundian art, which throughout the fifteenth century dominated the creations of the goldsmiths, as well as the sculptors, miniaturists, and tapestry workers, of the entire west of Europe.

Every one of these brooches is worthy of the most careful examination, particularly by the craftsman of the present day, for unlike the ornaments of more ancient times, they possess qualities which render them peculiarly appropriate to the circumstances of our later civilization. In the refinement and simplicity of their arrangement and design these medieval examples of the jeweler’s art transcend many of the greatly admired and more famous jewels of the Renaissance. This jewel once formed part of the treasure of the House of Burgundy, and came into the Imperial Collections through the marriage of Mary of Burgundy with the Emperor Maximilian I.

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